Not getting enough sleep? You’re in luck. Getting a full eight hours a night might not be as essential as previously thought.
According to a recent study, when you sleep matters more than the amount that you did, especially when it comes to long-term health and longevity. Published in the journal Sleep, the study, which analyzed sleep data from more than 60,000 people, found that those who maintained a regular sleep schedule were linked with a lower risk of death.
More specifically, those with consistent sleep patterns—going to bed and waking up at similar times each day—decreased the risk of miscellaneous premature death by 20% to 48%, cancer-related death by 16% to 39%, and heart or metabolic issues by 22% to 57%.
This isn’t to say adequate rest has no importance, of course. But the research proves that sleep duration is just a small part of sleep’s impact on overall health and well-being, and sleep experts agree.
“I always tell my patients, the timing of your sleep—specifically, the consistency of the timing of your sleep—is just as important as the amount of sleep,” says Jade Wu, PhD, DBSM, a board-certified sleep psychologist and Hatch sleep expert who was not associated with the study. “Everyone’s focused on the eight hours, but if you sleep eight hours at varying times, you’re not going to get the full benefit of sleeping enough.”
Wu also notes that while not everybody needs a full eight hours of sleep, everybody does need consistency in their sleep schedules.
“We call it ‘social jet lag’: when you wake up at different times throughout the week,” Wu says, giving the example of waking at 6:00 a.m. on weekdays and 9:00 a.m. on weekends. “That’s like if you flew from New York to LA and back every weekend. That’s the amount of jet lag you’re putting on your body.”
And, like real jet lag, there are real implications for your health.
“That’s not only detrimental to your sleep,” she continues. “It’s also detrimental to your metabolism, metabolic health, cognitive health, and heart health. So even if you’re exercising, eating well, and sleeping eight hours, you’re not going to get the most out of those good behaviors if your sleep is not consistent.” So while getting a nightly eight hours is good, what your body really wants is routine.
“Sleep loves rhythm and regularity, and part of that regularity is having a predictable sequence of events that starts telling the brain to slow down and get ready for bed,” says Alex Dimitriu, MD, a double-board-certified psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California. “A regular sleep-and-wake schedule, as well as a daily schedule for slowing down past a certain hour, is very helpful for sleep. Try not to sleep in too long on the weekends, ideally not more than an hour later than usual.”
As for how to set—and stick to—a designated sleep time? Create a relaxing bedtime routine.
“Dim lights in the evening (think sunset colors), some relaxing ambient music, maybe a cup of tea, can all be a part of slowing things down in preparation for a good night’s sleep,” says Dr. Dimitriu. “Eye masks have also shown benefit in improving sleep quality, and meditation can also go a long way toward helping people fall asleep.” You can download a sleep and/or meditation app to help you win down as well.
At the end of the (literal) day, it’s important to remember that improving sleep takes time.
“Be patient with sleep,” Dr. Dimitriu advises. “Everyone these days wants immediate results, and one night of doing ‘the right things’ may not be enough. If you are having trouble sleeping, commit to a routine for at least two weeks before giving up.”
Originally published in Glamour.com